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Chapter Five: Young Black Teenagers
From a perch in the second-floor balcony, the main floor of New York City's Hammerstein Ballroom seems sheathed in shadow. Every so often the house lights wink on and off and the shadow moves. Heaves like something alive. Then the lights flare brightly enough to break the undulating shadow into its discrete parts: hundreds of youth gathered below, awaiting the arrival of hip-hop gods, the Wu-Tang Clan.
It is winter. Those below are outfitted appropriately. They wear baggy, heavy jeans and boots. Voluminous jackets. Hats pulled low. Some huddle together, smaller packs within packs. Others lope slowly around the outskirts with that rhythmic bop so particular of hip-hop youth.
They are antsy. The night has already grown long in the tooth; and, quite in character, Wu-Tang Clan has not yet put in an appearance. Today, November 21, 2000, marked the release of the group's third album, The W, and the faithful are hungry with anticipation for this show. Restless, they make do with the selections offered by the DJ on stage. They are a critical bunch, roaring with approval to songs by the hardcore likes of Wu-Tang and M.O.P., grumbling with reluctant appreciation to Jay-Z's ghetto capitalist tales, hissing angrily when the DJ puts on the drawled, southern strains of Master P.
Finally, suddenly, Wu-Tang arrives. They glide out onstage, these men from Staten Island who revamped hip-hop seven long years ago in 1993. They have all come: the RZA, the GZA, [yes] Ol' Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, Ghostface Killa, Masta Killa, and Method Man. They stalk the stage like the hungry wolves they remain; each man dressed in head-to-toe leather. RZA, the leader, slides to the front. A roar greets him. He puts his hands up.
"All my niggas! All my Wu-Tang niggas! Put your Ws up in the air!"
The entire crowd makes the sign: arms straight up, palms facing forward, thumbs touching. With splendid timing the house lights crash on full bore to reveal a spellbinding sight: hundreds of white arms making the Wu-Tang W; hundreds of white faces gazing adoringly at RZA; hundreds of white mouths screaming in approval as RZA exhorts his "Wu niggas" to show their love.
I met my first hip-hop white boy a long time ago 1985 to be exact. My family had just moved to Freeport, Long Island, from Flatbush, Brooklyn. I didn't know what to expect from Long Island aside from three facts. One, we would now have a house, a far cry from the cramped, two-bedroom Flatbush apartment in which we'd been living. Two, trees and grass would replace concrete and asphalt. Three, expect white folk.
I hadn't had too much experience with white folk. In Guyana, as in most of the Caribbean, there are people of European descent. But their numbers are relatively small, and Caribbean culture is such an all-encompassing identity that the huge fault lines that separate white and black in the American racial experience are comparatively tiny, despite the Caribbean's colonial history. The fractures rest elsewhere: between black and Indian in Guyana and Trinidad, between warring political parties and their supporters in Jamaica, between rich and poor in Haiti.
The white folk I'd encountered in Brooklyn were discrete, remote figures. Policemen, transit workers, the teachers at my junior high school, and a couple of older guys who lived on my aunt's block, Forty-second Street. But there were no white children my own age in the regions I roamed around Church Avenue. Even at my junior high school, located in the more mixed neighborhood of Midwood, the nonblack faces seemed few and far between; and we didn't mingle socially in any event.
Freeport was different. The signs that marked the town's border did not announce "suburban experiment in progress." But from the moment we took Exit 21 off New York's Southern State Parkway my family dove into the swirling beaker that was Freeport, Long Island. It was a town where diversity was as apt to collide as blend, a body of contrasts beneath a quilt of suburban similitude. In Freeport only five minutes of car time separated palatial dwellings along Seaman Avenue, with their middle-class inhabitants, from a grim stretch of road just steps from the town's Long Island Rail Road station where serious young men plied their trade in crack cocaine. Afternoons at Freeport High saw yellow buses fetch young cargo to respective corners of the town. There was the South bus, which would wend its way down tree-lined Brookside Avenue to deposit kids in bucolic settings before ending up at grittier Buffalo Avenue, home to Freeport's best rendition of a New York City housing project, a place where the acrid scent of poverty clung with stubborn insistence. And then the various North buses, some traveling up Brookside to the spacious homes on Seaman, some venturing more east than north, closer to the enterprising young toughs standing vigil on cold corners.
We all came together in the hallways of Freeport High: middle-class and working-class kids; the children of families like my own, recently transplanted from New York City boroughs, and those with established Long Island credentials; long-haired, dark-clad white kids hanging in packs outside the school's front door, puffing away on cigarettes; clean-cut white kids intent on the football or lacrosse teams; nerdy, seemingly unsophisticated black kids with generically branded clothing, the social kiss of death in high school; cool, hip-hop-edged black kids rocking Spotbilt sneakers, bomber jackets, and large sheepskin coats; and Spanish kids, mostly Puerto Rican, a smaller minority in the hallways and cafeteria but growing every day. We were a rainbow mix. West Indian, African-American, Latino, Irish, Italian, Jewish.
Sometimes we butted heads, like the lunch period in tenth grade when one of my boys calmly mentioned that he was heading over to Dodd Junior High School because we were gonna "scrap with the Puerto Ricans" in that school's parking lot. Contused faces ambled about Freeport High the next day, including that of my soccer teammate Boris, a lanky, burly Spanish kid whose face looked liked he'd been stomped with cleated shoes. Then there were the legendary fights in the park on Freeport's south side. These took place before my family moved from Brooklyn. According to the story, older black guys like big Darren Wise, who'd long graduated from Freeport High slugged it out on occasion with their white peers, who were quite put out by these black kids strutting like they owned the south side. Still, for the most part the kids from different groups ignored each other outside of academics and sports. But not all.
Within a week of my midterm arrival at Freeport High my math class had to take a big test. The lot of us sat hunched over wooden desks with pens poised under the watchful, scowling eye of our bespectacled teacher.
"Psssst!" There came an insistent sound from my left. At first I ignored it.
"Psssssst!" It came again. With greater volume.
I looked over cautiously. Just to my left sat a small, compact white kid. He wore a baseball cap over his eyes. His feet rode blue-and-white Spotbilts. I'd met him during my first couple days in the class. His name was Ronnie Wingey. He was a crack-up. Full of jokes and off-color observations. Upon meeting me Ron had been intrigued to hear I was from Brooklyn. Though once he realized I wasn't some bad boy type I think some of the NYC luster wore off.
"Yo, what's the answer to number two?" he whispered.
I looked at him with bemusement. Then I whispered the answer at him.
"Thanks," he muttered, scribbling away at his paper, wicked grin on his face.
There were only a few kids like Ron in Freeport High. John Henry, a tall quiet kid who played on the basketball team and slouched through the hall with his black teammates; Big Stan, who proudly wore his Rastafarian emblems around his neck and probably knew more about reggae than anyone else in the school; and Mike Ippoliti, a cocky, crazy Italian kid whose couldn't-care-less attitude and ready laugh endeared him to his black schoolmates. But there weren't a whole lot in 1985. Not too many white kids wearing the trappings of hip-hop like aficionados born.
Ron was the truth though. Even if one were tempted to snicker at the rolling bop in his walk, the hip-hop cadence in his talk, and his baggy, brand-conscious clothing style, you couldn't front on his cultural attributes. Ron was just about the best DJ in Freeport High. And we had some good DJs. But Ron could make a pair of Technics 1200 turntables, the techno tools at the center of hip-hop, work delicious, sonic magic. I have many memories of late-night parties during those years, Ron bent deep over the turntables, often the only white face in the room. He would cut, mix, and scratch record after record, like EPMD's "You're a Customer" or De La Soul's "Plug Tunin." The room would erupt in shouts and cheers as the excited partygoers danced with increased energy, screaming their approval of Ron's guidance.
Toward the end of our high school years Ron began working with local hip-hop heroes Public Enemy, the firebrand group on Russell Simmons's Def Jam label who'd ignited political consciousness in the hip-hop generation. Public Enemy hailed from Roosevelt, a town that adjoined Freeport. Kids in Freeport and Roosevelt were little different from their city peers when it came to the objects of their hip-hop affection. Acts like LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, and Run-DMC were huge faves; but we regarded Public Enemy with fierce pride, for these were homegrown icons. They might be seen cruising down Main Street, the road that connected Freeport with Roosevelt, subject to shouted sidewalk greetings and firsthand viewings. We imagined that Chuck D and Flavor Flav PE's front men were just a few degrees of separation from any of us. Little wonder that Ron's hush-hush work with Public Enemy gave him major props.
Shortly after high school that work stood revealed: Ron and four other young, white guys among them DJ Skribble of future MTV fame had formed a rap group. Ron was an MC in the crew, not the DJ, as his Freeport chums might have assumed. He'd put down the turntables and picked up the microphone, adopting a new moniker in the process, Kamron. The group's Svengali was Hank Shocklee, member of the Bomb Squad, the production outfit behind Public Enemy's cacophonous assaults. Shocklee dreamed up a public persona for the group that drew from PE's sense of the controversial as well as Long Island's multiracial stew. Thus, these five white kids became the Young Black Teenagers.
The rest of the world wasn't ready. Although the group was decently talented and had one minor hit, "Tap the Bottle," they ended up spending a good deal of time defending their notion of blackness as beyond physical identity, blackness as a state of mind. It was met with derision. Race became an increasingly sticky subject in hip-hop during the early nineties. Nation consciousness, Afro-bohemianism, inner-city defiance, and the stridently militant narratives of groups like Public Enemy, X-Clan, N.W.A., and the Native Tongues marked the period. Even those of us who knew and respected Ron found YBT difficult to swallow.
YBT did release two albums, Young Black Teenagers in 1991 on Shocklee's MCA imprint Soul, and 1993's Dead Enz Kidz Doin Lifetime Bidz on MCA proper; but eventually, perhaps inevitably, they faded away. In retrospect Shocklee's error may have been in substituting black for hip-hop in defining the cultural mind-set of which Ron and his group were a part. Though Young Hip-Hop Teenagers may not have been the catchiest name around, either.
The next time I saw Ron he was on the big screen. He played the dreadlocked college roommate of Kid one half of the popular rap group Kid 'N Play in the Hudlin Brothers' House Party 2, the 1993 sequel to their successful teen/rap vehicle House Party. It was an ironic role Kamron as the white but ultrahip, dipped-in-black foil to the straitlaced, suburban-ish Kid. Ron didn't have to act that part. That was his reality. By this time I'd been in college for a few years and several folk on campus were none too happy at the idea of this white kid running around in what seemed like a gross parody of hip-hop identity. I often found myself defending Ron, insisting that his motives were genuine, that he was the real deal.
But this was 1993. And the growing commercial and cultural consumption of hip-hop by the mainstream had rekindled long-simmering debates over cultural ownership. The backlash against Vanilla Ice and his invented gangsta past had created the specter of a hip-hop Elvis, the term wigger was newly coined, Dr. Dre and Snoop had pushed hardcore hip-hop to its greatest pop appeal yet with Dre's Chronic album, and white youth were coming in from the sidelines where they'd been carefully listening to the likes of Public Enemy, where they'd been appreciative spectators since the incipient days of hip-hop culture, coming deeper inside the party to try the food and drink on for size. Folk looked on askance. Was this the trade-off for hip-hop's mass appeal? Is this the moment where we fall prey to the age-old game and surrender our homegrown cultural product to white people? And how the fuck can you defend that Kamron kid when you don't like the shit any more than we do?
Kamron and his crew weren't the first white artists in hip-hop. Nor were high schoolers in 1985 the first white folk to be down with hip-hop. Far from it. In the mythmaking about hip-hop's origins its early racial makeup too often gets homogenized as solely African-American. Even hip-hop's adherents, including me, have often been guilty of that generalization. Hip-hop wasn't simply a by-product of disaffected black youth in the South Bronx during the seventies. There were incredible contributions by Latino youth, particularly in the formation and evolution of hip-hop's B-boy and graffiti subcultures. Legends like Rock Steady Crew's Crazy Legs, whose B-boy dance crew has achieved worldwide fame since its inception in the late seventies, DJ Charlie Chase and Whipper Whip are as seminal in their own right as Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash, the black DJs widely credited as the founding fathers of hip-hop culture. And white folk were there, too. Perhaps not in the same cultural production mode with the noteworthy exception of graffiti artists like Zephyr and Seen but certainly as observers and participants of the burgeoning scene, particularly with the onset of the eighties when promoters like Russell Simmons began taking hip-hop parties downtown.
Once hip-hop moved into the commercial phase of its existence post the 1979 release of "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang, on Sylvia Robinson's Sugarhill Records once it became something that had market value as well as cultural cool, the white presence expanded accordingly. The year 1981 witnessed the emergence of Tom Silverman's Tommy Boy Records, the label at which De La Soul and Queen Latifah would later reside, and Profile Records, founded by Cory Robbins and Steve Plotnicki. Profile would soon become the recording home of Joseph Simmons, younger brother of Russell, Darryl McDaniels, and Jason Mizell, collectively known as Run-DMC, perhaps the most significant hip-hop group of all time. Profile landed Run-DMC because Russell Simmons, who managed the group at the time, could not make headway with the black executives at the major labels. These executives, with their background in traditional R&B, simply refused to take a chance with Run-DMC's first single "Sucker MCs," a stark number full of angular, almost harsh, percussion and aggressive vocals. But Robbins and Plotnicki were willing to roll the dice. Hip-hop's symbiotic relationship between white, corporate backers with capital and distribution and black talent, whether artists or heads of boutique labels, has existed ever since.
As the eighties unfolded white hip-hoppers moved into the arena of cultural production, albeit in relatively small numbers. Lord Stotch, a Manhattanite who came on the scene in 1980, is acknowledged in some quarters as the first white rapper. Rick Rubin, who would partner with Russell Simmons at the Def Jam label, was a talented and prolific producer. In 1986 the Beastie Boys, three young white kids with a zany punk edge, released License to Ill on Def Jam to explosive success. Queens, New York, producer Paul C, whose 1989 murder remains unsolved, was a visionary in the crafting of percussive and textured hip-hop compositions, teaching and influencing black artists like Large Professor and Organized Konfusion.
A steady trickle of white MCs came after the Beasties: 3rd Bass, a well-received New York duo made up of a heavy-set Jewish kid, MC Serch, and his lean, cigar-smoking WASP counterpart, Prime Minister Pete Nice, made a few important records during the early nineties; Everlast, a smooth-faced kid who rapped alongside Ice-T in the late eighties, would later reinvent himself as the grizzled, buzzed-cut frontman of the Irish-influenced group House of Pain. That group's 1992 smash "Jump Around" remains a hit on college campuses and frat houses to this day. The list also includes Mark Wahlberg's younger incarnation, Marky Mark, along with his Funky Bunch, the aforementioned Vanilla Ice, Milkbone, a kid from Staten Island who made a temporary blip on the radar, and EL-P, erstwhile lead MC for underground hip-hop legends Company Flow. And last, though far from least, the exclamation point on the end of this particular genealogy, Eminem.
Hip-hop has certainly had its white artists but none of them have threatened the natural, assumed order of things. Indeed, for all the hand-wringing over Vanilla Ice's runaway success, more than seven million copies of 1990's To the Extreme, and the subsequent charges that he was a fake and a fraud, his commercial triumph could be hand-waved to some degree, ascribed to the long history of black music ending up more profitable once a white face becomes attached to it. Talent, in this case, was not a factor. Ice never threatened to seize any MC crown. Eminem represents a whole other kettle of fish. Picture a white sprinter emerging from some corner of the country to whup Maurice Green's ass. That's Eminem; easily one of the best MCs around. And for all the media focus on Eminem's commercial success, his offensive narratives, and the role his whiteness played in his early adoption by MTV, his critical chops and outstanding craftsmanship in the art of MCing gets underplayed.
MC judgments in hip-hop can be very subjective, yet there exist a core set of standards that we understand, even if they're not articulated at all, or get articulated differently in different places. There are three essential components to the craft. First, tone, the sound of an MC's voice. Great MCs have tones as distinct and varied as those of bebop's horn greats the rumbling bass of a Notorious B.I.G., the urgent baritone of Tupac Shakur, the airy, melodic shuffle of a Snoop Dogg. All instantly recognizable. Second, delivery, the rhythmic pacing and flow of the MC's voice. Styles of delivery can range tremendously, from the rapid fire, staccato bursts often used by southern MCs like Dre of OutKast, to the more measured, cleverly syncopated patterns of a Jay-Z. Third, content, simply enough, the narrative and the structural devices the MC uses to communicate it. A good MC possesses all three elements. A great MC performs them all consistently, live atop a stage or on record. That's the territory in which Eminem strides.
But being white in hip-hop, no matter how good you are, is a complicated thing. Although hip-hop's purchasing public is some 70 percent white, the culture's modes, tones, and styles, its aesthetic heart, remains defined by its nonwhite core. Thus, any operation by a white hip-hopper within this heavily nonwhite space, a space where blacks hold a power at odds with the greater scheme of things and cling to it accordingly, is an operation fraught with the history of American cultural exchange. New languages must be learned, motives examined, and autonomy closely guarded. For white artists this operation can manifest in a curious balance between a sometimes unspoken deference where nonwhite artists are concerned, and a game of one-upmanship with other white folk as regards hip-hop cool. With Eminem it emerges both in his stated position of eschewing the word nigger in his songs an interesting position given that the term is tossed about in rap like so much confetti, not to mention Eminem's protracted use of other offensive terms and in his almost maniacal tirades against the likes of Everlast, Limp Bizkit, Insane Clown Posse, etc., white artists all. Yet Eminem has never uttered a disparaging word on record against black hip-hop artists well, save for maybe Will Smith, and even that one was pretty light. He's tossed no disses, no challenges, no lyrical fuck-yous. And that sort of edgy competitiveness is such a de rigueur part of hip-hop that its absence in Eminem's work thus far is glaring.
If Eminem is exhibit one of the white presence in hip-hop, my old boss Dave Mays, owner and publisher of The Source magazine, is exhibit two. Mays was a walking, breathing avatar of the general, surface perception of hip-hop. The clothes, the jewelry, the cars. You name it; he rocked it. In fact, I'd sometimes joke that if we stood side by side, him in baggy hip-hop gear from head to toe, me in a suit, it might be challenging to tell, race-based presumption aside, who was the editor of a hip-hop magazine and who was the publisher. But Mays was like my high school friend Ron in many ways. He'd been down with hip-hop for a long time, a part and parcel of its fabric since high school in the eighties all the way through his college days at Harvard, where he started The Source as a newsletter. You couldn't question his sincerity and commitment lightly. Mays loved hip-hop; especially it's hardcore, rougher elements. And oh, did he look upon other white folk with deep suspicion. Mays would be quick to snort with scorn about "these white boys running around like they hip-hop," a comment that could encompass anyone, from writers, to fans, to music industry executives. His self-indoctrination in hip-hop's street ethos would, upon occasion, even cause him to cast that suspicious eye beyond white folk, nudging me to inquire if so-and-so writer wasn't, perhaps, a bit too "bourgie" to really understand hardcore hip-hop. That so-and-so editor was just too damn "corny" and altogether out of touch with hip-hop. I would always look at Mays with astonishment when he said something like that. Eventually, he would acquiesce and go along with any personnel decisions I made. But I never understood the ease with which he could say and think such things about young, black journalists who clearly were attuned to hip-hop, or I wouldn't have picked them in the first place. Yet they didn't register high enough on his personal meter. It demonstrated a remarkable sense of authority and presumption, not to mention a class-oriented bias that seemed ludicrous coming from a Harvard-educated white kid. Then, a year later, a very smart, young white writer I later worked with put it in context. Jon Caramanica also a Harvard-educated hip-hop head, ironically enough and I were sitting in the offices of 360hiphop.com the day after I attended the Wu-Tang show at the Hammerstein Ballroom, musing about the all-white hip-hop crowd and the attitudes of some white boys in hip-hop. Jon might have been talking about the kids at the show, but he made me understand Mays and his ilk a bit better.
"Look," he said, "it's like a sliding scale. As a white boy in hip-hop, you gotta have someone on the scale below you. First, it's all the corny white kids, then the ones new to hip-hop. The ones trying really hard. Clearly you're cooler than that. But then you start measuring yourself up to the black kids, thinking surely you're cooler, more hip-hop than the ones who don't seem to wear hip-hop on their sleeve, the ones who you perceive as corny. Then you start thinking you're more hip-hop than they are."
Life would lack a certain poetic balance if my narratives of Eminem and Dave Mays did not collide. Fortunately, they do. In the spring of 1999, one year after a young editor named Riggs Morales chose this amazing white MC as the feature for The Source's Unsigned Hype column, a platform for undiscovered talent, that MC, Eminem, was riding the tremendous wave of his debut album's first single, "My Name Is." The editorial staff decided that we would put him on the cover and use the occasion to compose a package discussing the white presence in hip-hop. Dave seemed lukewarm to the cover idea but didn't raise significant protest.
We shot Eminem the following month in a Chelsea studio. He seemed very quiet and low key, nodding silently when introduced. He padded around the studio with his baggy clothes and blond hair, curiously flipping through the CD collection atop the stereo in one corner of the space. Once the shoot began he willingly followed the photographer's direction, becoming more animated as the shutter whirred, grinning brightly when an entourage member exclaimed that, shit, he, Eminem, was gonna be on the cover of The Source.
Later, the news trickled out that Rolling Stone also planned to feature Eminem on its cover. I pressed ahead anyway, convinced that the uniqueness of the moment and the strong editorial package was worth it. Mays, however, began to backpedal. Eventually, he decided against it, ostensibly because Rolling Stone was going to beat us to the newsstand, a very logical reason by our publishing orthodoxy. Truth be told, Rolling Stone just provided a decent excuse. The real reason we didn't do it was because Mays felt uncomfortable with the image on the cover. I'll never forget showing a mock-up to him and the incredulous look on his face as he muttered, "Jesus, a white boy on the cover of The Source!"
Ironically, Eminem would get his Source cover a year later and some months after my departure. Nevertheless, by that juncture, on the eve of Eminem's sophomore album, it was a safe, predictable choice. The white elephant that had been tromping by Eminem's side as he'd run through hip-hop's house the year prior had, for the most part, been reckoned with and accepted, and now occasioned few raised eyebrows. Unsurprisingly, The Source grabbed the expected roof-shattering sales for that issue. But the magazine had clearly missed a moment the year prior.
I don't go back to Freeport that often today. It is not a calculated thing. The town is only some thirty minutes from my Brooklyn neighborhood. And some of my good friends and their families still reside there. I simply don't go much. When I do tread its streets there is happiness kindled by fond memories. But there is sadness, as well, stoked by the reality of far too many old compatriots locked into a low-ceilinged existence. Far too many friends and acquaintances for whom a bigger, broader world never materialized. Freeport just seems so constricted now, so small.
But one thing seemed broader three years ago: the interplay of diversity at Freeport High. That spring, 1998, The Source came up with the idea for an issue on race and the hip-hop generation. For the main feature we decided that three staffers should go back to their former high schools and interview a group of students about race. I chose to go back to mine.
Now, some ten years after I'd made my last exit, I strode through Freeport High's wide double doors. As fate would pen it, the school was having a day-long celebration of ethnic diversity, a program that had been instituted a few years back. The hallways seemed both more colorful, and more homogenous than in my day. There were bodies of different types, faces of different shades. But all seemed to wear variants of the same uniform. Oversize jeans and khakis, bright-colored windbreakers, Nike sneakers. Almost to a person they possessed the rudimentary components of a late-nineties hip-hop outfit. They looked like multicolored copies shot from some machine duplicating the same document. Indeed, in this environment a Ronnie Wingey would not stand out in the stark relief of a decade earlier. He would simply be one of many.
I spoke to a group of these students in the school's auditorium. They rested on the edge of the stage, facing the sprawl of empty seats. I sat on a chair before them, peering into their eager eyes. They were white, black, and Latino. Boys and girls. All were bright. All full of candor and energy. Race and identity was still conflicted territory to them, but they drew hope and strength from what they held in common. And what they held in common was hip-hop.
"Hey," one young girl said softly, "now we have something to talk about. Something we all relate to. Something we all share."
"And what happens when the music goes off?" I asked them. "Does the conversation continue?"
They looked at each other. Most nodded enthusiastically. Some shook their heads. All looked thoughtful.
The music hasn't gone off for Ronnie Wingey. I have not spoken to him in at least three years but I know he still lives in Freeport. He goes by the handle Kam. And he's still in the game, producing, making beats. Being real to who he is. I guess that's all hip-hop can ask of anyone. Black or white.
Copyright © 2002 by Selwyn Hinds